The Battle of Cortisol and Progesterone

Many people are told, when trying to conceive, that stress isn’t good for the process. They are not always told why, or what to do about it.

One reasoning is based on the biology of the body’s adrenal and endocrine systems. In order for a pregnancy to succeed, a body’s progesterone levels must stay elevated following conception. Progesterone is a hormone produced in the ovaries, the name of which comes from the Latin verb “gestare” (“to carry” -- the same root as gestation), prefix “pro-” (meaning “to” or “towards”), and suffix “-one” (indicating its classification of chemical). Which is all to say that progesterone is key to fertility and a lasting pregnancy.

If you chart your cycle, you may know that progesterone’s rise is indicated by the jump in your basal body temperature that follows ovulation. If the temperatures go back down, progesterone has dropped, which means either the period has arrived and that cycle has ended, or a miscarriage has occurred. 

But here’s the key detail. When we’re stressed, our immune systems are in high gear, ready to fight or run from what is stressing us. The body produces a stress hormone in the adrenal gland called cortisol to help it cope and respond. Cortisol is made of the same “ingredients” as progesterone, and the body prioritizes defense from stress over just about everything, including fertility. Which makes sense when we consider the stressors in the natural world we evolved in (animal invasions, the search for food, drought and flood… not great times for babies). So the production of the stress hormone literally robs the body of progesterone, by design. 

The problem is that we live in a world of fairly constant chronic stress. The work week is packed, bills are due, best friends go through hard times, trying to get pregnant is a struggle… a little extra progesterone would be great, as there’s no stressing wooly mammoth invasion to run from. 

Luckily, there are ways to remind your brain and signal to your body that all is actually well, and decrease its cortisol production. Modern psychology, nutritional science, and ancient mind/body practices, such as yoga and meditation, offer us ways to work with the body’s programmed responses to calm the stress-triggered-hormones, even in the midst of difficult situations. It’s not that these practices are going to make you magically conceive, or even necessarily get you past the biggest obstacles to conception. Or that it is impossible to get pregnant if you are stressed out. However, they can help ease the stress of fertility struggles so that, when all other barriers are addressed, you will be helping to ensure that sure your body is ready to stay pregnant. 

  • Magnesium! First of all, magnesium is an essential ingredient for both cortisol and progesterone, but, as described above, the body prioritizes the production of cortisol. First of all, magnesium can be used to replenish the progesterone lost to cortisol (Briden, 2015, p.88-90).  Second of all, a lack of magnesium actually sends the body into more stress (p. 113). You can get magnesium in foods like leafy greens, fish, nuts, and seeds as well as in oral supplements and Epsom salt baths.
  • Talk and somatic therapies help to process stressors. There are many sex therapists and marriage and family counselors who are trained to work with couples or individuals navigating fertility challenges. 
  • Yoga has been shown to decrease cortisol levels very significantly (Knittel, 2007).  The breathing practices used in yoga, called pramayama, also stimulate the vagus nerve, which is critical to the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system – the system that calms the body down by mechanisms such as slowing the heart rate. As the Cleveland Clinic explains: “if your stressed-out body were a burning building, the vagus nerve would be the hose that carries the water that quells the flames and restores things to a nonemergency state.” Yin yoga and restorative yoga are great for targeting a balance to life stressors.
  • Mindfulness meditation can also activate the vagus nerve, and has other cognitive benefits as well. At its core, mindfulness is slowing down perception enough to gain an awareness of what’s happening in the present moment. It is based in meditation, is shown to regulate the stress response and its accompanying hormones, and brings unconscious thoughts and narratives into light. 
  • Adaptogens are a class of herbs that work with body’s systems of adaptation and stress response. Rhodiola Rosea is an adapatogen that has been studied extensively and successfully (Briden, 2015, p.91). The internet or a local herbalist can help you find the best for you, or here are a couple online lists to start your research with: 
  1. http://draxe.com/7-adaptogen-herbs-to-lower-cortisol/
  2. http://www.medicinehunter.com/adaptogens 
  3. http://www.drfranklipman.com/adaptogens-natures-miracle-anti-stress-and-fatigue-fighters/

 

Many companies make tinctures that combine stress-relieving herbs, as well. 

Be sure to consult a professional to make sure herbs are safe to take while pregnant or breastfeeding, if applicable, and to make sure they don’t interact with any other conditions you have.

There are many other methods to help regulate Coristol, but those are a start! Have a favorite I didn’t mention? 

Citations 

Briden, L. (2015). Period repair manual: Natural treatment for better hormones and better periods.

The Cleveland Clinic. (ND.) What Happens in Vagus. Stress Free Now. Retrieved from http://www.clevelandclinicwellness.com/programs/NewSFN/pages/default.aspx?Lesson=1&Topic=5&UserId=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000705

Etymology Online. (ND.) “Progesterone.” Retrieved from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=-one&allowed_in_frame=0

Knittel, L. (2007). Destress with yoga. Yoga Journal Online. Retrieved from http://www.yogajournal.com/article/health/beginner-s-bliss/

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